Monday, July 25, 2011

Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise, Day 3, Part 2 - Whale Watching

After meeting with our red-vested crew, we boarded a bus and drove to Auke Bay, 20 minutes from the dock. Nick, our driver, told us stories the whole way. Then down the ramp and onto the St. Vincent, our motorized catamaran. A nice crew, and a nicely appointed ship -- lots of binoculars and route maps provided.

Wil and I headed upstairs along with a lot of our group and settled in. We sailed to an area where they had spotted whales, and suddenly there were LOTS of whales. The naturalist counted at least 13 of them, all engaged in something called "bubble net feeding", which is a cooperative behavior unique to southeastern Alaska. One whale is the leader and blows a ring of bubbles around a school of herring. The other whales all have jobs, too -- driving the fish into the "net". The herring swim tighter and tighter together, forming a giant "bait ball". At a signal from the lead whale, all of the whales open their mouths wide and zoom up under and through the bait ball, scooping the fish into their mouths.

When it's happening, the water looks quiet. Then the birds start circling and then all of a sudden there is a circle of huge black, gaping mouths. Amazing!

We watched them do it twice, setting up catches over 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile a baby whale, possibly bored by the grown-ups' working, was playing around, leaping out of the water and frolicking.

After watching two cycles, we turned to go (I believe there are limits to how long boats are allowed to be near whales, perhaps?). But while we were moving, we noticed that the birds started going nuts not far from us. The captain cut the engines and then all of a sudden there was a whale feeding frenzy, all around our ship. AMAZING! Everyone went nuts. I believe I was one of many who shrieked "Oh yes!" at one point. Nuts. The naturalist and crew were saying that it was one of the best sightings they had had all season, and that often they just spot a whale swimming alongside, and that that was "enough".

John said that unless another whale popped up smoking a cigar and singing "Hello Dolly", he wouldn't be impressed. (That reminded me of Michigan J. Frog, the singing frog from the Warner Brothers cartoons.... which made John start singing that song, and made me apologize to Jenny...)

We sailed around for a little while, spotting a bald eagle and some catatonic stellar sea lions on a buoy.

Then eventually we headed back (spotting one whale swimming alone, which attracted very little interest from our jaded gang), and bussed back to the ship. I did manage to pick up a newspaper to dry out our shoes, but no other souvenirs.

While waiting to go up the gangplank I had my Achilles tendon clipped by a lady pushing a wheelchair -- luckily only bruised. And then we were on board.

We had a late dinner that night at Canaletto -- a tiny sliver carved out of the Lido buffet, but turned into a fine Italian restaurant. I was starving, having had only 4 pieces of sushi, a handful of tortilla chips, and 2 granola bars since 8am. No, wait, on our evening whale watching cruise I enjoyed a selection of fine desserts and appetizers! Three donut holes and a ritz cracker with a bit of smoked salmon on it.

Still, I was STARVING, so we ate like pigs. Tons of delicious bread, grilled veggie antipasti, a seafood soup, potentially a salad? And I had amazingly perfect seafood fetuccini alfredo. Gorgeous. And, yes, we had dessert -- a trio of tiny, creamy tiramisu in different flavors. YUM. Waddled back to the room and collapsed. A fine, fine day!

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